“Jesus said again, ‘I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep … I am the gate; whoever enters through Me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture’” (John 10:7, 9).
The Apostle John records the remarkable events that unfolded during the Feast of Tabernacles celebrated in Jerusalem six months before Jesus’ death (John 7:14 – 10:21). This feast serves as the setting for three of the eight “I am” proclamations. In the final days of the seven-day feast, Jesus declared, “I am the light of the world” (8:12, 9:5), “I am the gate for the sheep” (10:7) and “I am the good shepherd” (10:11,14).
The coming of Jesus was the coming of light into the world—light that inevitably brought judgment. The light of the world exposes the false shepherds of Israel who do not love the sheep. Jesus shines the divine spotlight on the blind guides (Matt. 23:16) who earlier that day threw one of the “sheep” out of the fold (John 9:34).
The picture of the Judean shepherd with his sheep is woven into the language and imagery of the Bible. From the first shepherd—king, David, and from Moses, the great shepherd, to Jesus, the Good Shepherd, the shepherd embodied the essentials of authentic leadership. It is therefore not surprising that Jesus frequently used vivid metaphors of sheep and sheep herding in His teaching.
The shepherd continues to be the most familiar figure of the Judean uplands. Judea’s 20-mile-wide central plateau stretches for 35 miles from Bethel to Hebron. While the rough, stony terrain makes farming difficult, it provides an adequate environment for tending sheep.
The shepherd’s life is hard. No flock ever grazed without his watchful guidance. He is never “off duty,” and must constantly watch, guard and nurture his flock. Since grass is invariably sparse, the sheep are bound to wander into dangerous terrain. The ground dips sharply on either side of the central plateau to the desert on the east and the coastal plain on the west. Sheep are constantly in danger of falling into one of the many ravines. Without protecting walls, the sheep require safeguarding from the perilous landscape.
JESUS UNDERSCORED THE
FUNDAMENTAL TRUTH THAT
THROUGH HIM ALONE HIS SHEEP
FIND ACCESS TO GOD.
Besides protecting his sheep from physical danger, the shepherd in biblical times had to guard the flock from wild animals, especially the wolf. In addition, thieves were always ready to steal the sheep. In Jesus’ day and today, a shepherd must possess constant vigilance, fearless courage and patient love.
At the close of the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus employs these well-known pastoral images to illustrate His relationship to His followers: “I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep” (10:1-2). The Jewish leaders did not understand the meaning of the story. Jesus plainly applies it to Himself: “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep” (10:7).
In the allegory of the good shepherd (10:1-6), Jesus speaks of two types of gates. He uses the word for the “winter” gate in verses two and three. During the cold season, the sheep were kept in communal pens. A strong wooden door protected the sheep at night. Only the appointed guardian had the key to the door.
In verses seven and nine, Jesus chooses a word that describes the “summer” gate—the field sheep pen. Since good feeding grass was scarce in summer, the shepherd constantly led his flock to the best feeding areas, often miles from home. The summer pen was composed of a primitive stone enclosure in an open field. A space in the wall served as the gate. This was the only access to the sheep pen. At night, the shepherd slept across the opening. Sheep could not come in or go out except over his body. Literally, the shepherd was the door.
Jesus changed the word for “door” to underscore the fundamental truth that through Him alone His sheep find access to God. As the Apostle Paul affirmed, “Through Him we have access to the Father” (Eph. 2:18). Jesus opens the way to God.
As the gate to the sheep pen, Jesus provides secure passage for His followers to “come in and go out, and find pasture” (John 10:9). To come in and go out un molested was the Jewish way of describing an absolutely secure life. The leader of the nation was a person who could bring his people in and out safely (Num. 27:17). The obedient person is blessed when he comes in and blessed when he goes out (Deut. 28:6). The Psalmist is sure that God will keep him in his going out and coming in (Psalm 121:8). With Jesus the pathway to God and from God to service is unmolested.
Jesus concludes with this remarkable statement: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). Literally, the phrase “have it to the full” means “to have a superabundance of something.” Jesus’ sheep enjoy a superabundant life. Only His sheep can truly say, “It just does not get better than this!”
Commissioner William W. Francis is a retired officer. He is also the author of The Stones Cry Out (USA Eastern Territory, 1993) and Celebrate the Feasts of the Lord (Crest Books, 1997), and is a frequent contributor to the War Cry and other Salvation Army publications.